The new Arab revolt

Life inside Mubarak’s torture chambers, a letter from Tunisia, why the neoconservatives are still wr

In this week's New Statesman, we publish a special spread on revolt in the Arab world, featuring Tariq Ramadan, Lana Asfour, Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz.

Maajid Nawaz spent four years in prison in Egypt between 2002 and 2006 for his role as leader of the pan-Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir. In this week's New Statesman, Nawaz discusses life in one of Mubarak's torture centres.

I was "Number 42" in the dungeons of Hosni Mubarak's torture facilities. Before me were 41 poor souls, taken one by one and electrocuted. Behind me were hundreds more. Wives were stripped and tortured in front of their husbands, children electrocuted in front of their parents. Few returned from the darkness of Cairo's el-Gihaz and Lazoughly cells . . .

Mubarak's Egypt perfected the art of torture without leaving a mark. His was a regime that terrorised an entire population into silence. His was a regime that basked in the lavish attention of western leaders while Egyptian Islamists, communists and democrats all lived in fear. Now it's game over for him and his regime.

The Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan comments on a time of momentous change in the Arab world and asks who will fill the power vacuum being created in the Middle East.

"A barrier has fallen," writes Ramadan. "Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance."

Presidents and kings are feeling the pressure of this historical turning point. The unrest has reached Algeria, Yemen and Mauritania. One should also look at Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia. The rulers of all these countries know that if the Egyptian is collapsing, they run the risk of the same destiny.

Egypt could well prove the tipping point for reform and democracy in the Arab world, according to Ramadan.

This state of instability is worrying and at the same time very promising. The Arab world is awakening with dignity and hope. The changes spell hope for true democrats, and trouble for those who would sacrifice democratic principle to their economic and geostrategic calculations.

What will fill the power vacuum is not solely the decision of the populace in the Arab world, however.

Neither the United States nor Europe, not to mention Israel, will easily allow the Egyptian people to make their dream of democracy and freedom come true. The strategic and geopolitical considerations are such that the reform movement will be, and is already, closely monitored by US agencies in co-ordination with the Egyptian army, which has played for time and assumed the crucial role of mediator.

Lana Asfour reports from the epicentre of the Arab revolt, Tunisia.

Whatever Tunisia's political landscape will look like in six months, it is clear that the hard work is just beginning. Tunisia has to address institutional corruption after years of dictatorship and learn how to exercise democracy in all areas of life.

But the novelty of freedom has still not worn off, according to Asfour.

Back on the tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue [in Tunis], the mood is exuberant. People are proud of what they have achieved and delighted to be able to speak freely without threat of arrest and torture.

It has been a very civilised revolution, she argues:

What is reassuring about this revolution is that there is little desire for vengeance against those who had ties to the RCD. Tunisia, which can boast a highly educated population and equal rights for women, has conducted a very civilised revolution.

Finally, Mehdi Hasan attacks the crude use of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in order to justify George Bush's foreign policy in the region.

Blair and Bush were not interested in Arab freedom and democracy initially, argues Hasan.

Freedom for the Iraqis became the primary justification for the war only after weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a figment of the neoconservative imagination.

It wasn't that we were opposed to a "freedom agenda" in the Middle East but that we rejected the neocon formula that said democracy could be delivered through the barrel of a gun. We objected to the means, not the ends.

In a 2007 report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that the Bush administration had friendly relations with more than half of the 45 "non-free" countries in the world. Those included Egypt and Tunisia – the latter is now free from the grip of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the former, at the time of writing, is on the brink of liberation from Mubarak's police. Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia could be next. And the neocons, smug and sanctimonious, can't take credit for any of these events. Are we all neocons now? Of course not.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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